Watching Downton Abbey With An Historian: Aristos Out! -The Toast

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Previous installments in this series can be found here. There will be spoilers. “An historian” is a perfectly acceptable Commonwealth convention, haters to the left [side of the road.]

What use was aristocracy in twentieth century Britain? And what, specifically, was the use of a landed aristocracy in a rural, agricultural setting? These questions animate Downton Abbey at the most fundamental level. This week brought them into even sharper relief, as issues of taxes and estate management, which have been simmering in the background all season, finally took center stage.

The majority of people in Britain have lived in cities or large towns since 1851. To be fair, the ‘large towns’ of the 1851 census were not exactly cosmopolitan metropolises, but still, it cannot be denied that Britain urbanized early and thoroughly. The map of Britain and Ireland hanging on the wall above my desk shows the great conurbation of London in the south-east, with a dense network of roads radiating outward; Birmingham in the midlands and Manchester in the north are smaller echoes. The dominance of London and of town life, and the centrality of industry and financial services, had been established facts in Britain since before Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, was even born.

Noel_Coward_Allan_warrenAfter World War I, no major political party was interested in bolstering the aristocracy; death duties had doubled over the course of the war, to fifty percent at the highest level, and were increased again in 1925. Matthew might have saved Downton a bit of cash by dying when he did. Noël Coward (pictured, in 1972) satirized the situation in a 1938 poem that begins:

“The Stately Homes of England,

How beautiful they stand,

To prove the upper classes

Have still the upper hand;

Though the fact that they have to be rebuilt

And frequently mortgaged to the hilt

Is inclined to take the gilt

Off the gingerbread,

And certainly damps the fun

Of the eldest son—

But still we won’t be beaten,

We scrimp and scrape and save,

The playing fields of Eton

Have made us frightfully brave—

And though if the Van Dycks have to go

And we pawn the Bechstein Grand

We’ll stand

By the Stately Homes of England.”

Many landowners sold parcels of their estates to former tenants and other buyers, as Lord Grantham has suggested repeatedly. Such sales unsettled the traditional pattern of large estates farmed by long-term tenants such as the Drewes, whose family had been renting and farming part of Downton since the beginning of the nineteenth century. About a quarter of England, some six to eight million acres, was for sale at some point between 1918 and 1921. In 1914, only 11 percent of agricultural land was held by owner-occupiers; by 1927, that figure was 27 percent. Historian Peter Mandler has described the “tremendous psychological impact” of this transition, the “sense of the national inheritance passing, not between generations but between classes.” In reality, Lord Grantham and Lady Mary would probably have had auxiliary holdings which they could have sold off before parceling up the main estate, but the show’s sense of the emotional reality of moment is nonetheless accurate.

Some of this land went to build new homes for members of the middle class fleeing overcrowded cities. Suburbanization was a great fact of interwar life, especially in the southern counties near London. This was the dawn of the era of garden allotments and faux Elizabethan bungalows: the Daily Express coined the pejorative phrase “bungaloid growth” to describe the phenomenon. Alison Light, one of my favorite literary critics, describes “the suburban husband pottering in his herbaceous borders” as a archetypical figure of the era. The population of rural areas grew slightly even as the numbers of people employed in agriculture declined sharply.

Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, located in West Berkshire about seventy miles from London and so squarely in the geographical and environmental realm of home counties southern suburbs. The show is set, however, in Yorkshire; the closest town is Ripon, a small cathedral city touched only marginally by the industrialization that remade other areas of northern England. This fictionalized setting allows the show to focus, somewhat nostalgically, on farmers and agriculture rather than commuters and the rise of modern suburban life.

We meet Mr. Drewe at his father’s funeral, where he learns that his father died with the rent badly in arrears. The Drewes’ situation is anomalous; most farmers made unusual profits during the war. Many of them used that surplus to buy up the land being sold off by their former landlords, believing that they would enjoy stability and prosperity as agriculture returned to a mildly profitable norm. Instead, they suffered badly, struggling to meeting obligations to banks. Arable farming suffered a depression in the 1920s and 1930s. Agricultural prices declined slowly but steadily after the repeal (in 1921) of the price-stabilizing Agriculture Act of 1920, while costs rose quickly. Although some respite could be found by turning to livestock, in particular dairying and poultry farming, these were still difficult decades for the small farmer, just as for the landed gentry.

Even so, the transfer of power had been decisively made. The aristocracy would play an increasingly ornamental role, ceding power in county councils and other bodies of rural government to farmers and professionals. The National Farmers Union, which represented farmers rather than landowners, grew in size and influence. As in Ireland, where this process had begun years earlier under the operation of the Land Acts, the large farmer would become the dominant voice of the countryside, rather than patrician landowner.

urlWhat role was left to the aristocrat in this increasingly democratized atmosphere? At a talk I attended at a recent British Studies conference, Laura Nym Mayhall suggested that Lord Peter Wimsey, the famous sleuth created by Dorothy L. Sayers, is one possible solution to this problem. The brilliant younger son, Lord Peter provides an actually useful (if fanciful) service through his crime-solving while also displaying a decorative but reassuring code of gentlemanly honor. Lord Peter is a master of disguises; in Murder Must Advertise, he appears as a middle-class copywriter and a drug dealer with a flair for the dramatic before outing himself as an English aristocrat, inevitably, in a game of cricket. For Mayhall, this shape-shifting encapsulates the interwar uncertainty about the role of the aristocracy. Indeed, as Matt Houlbrook pointed out recently on his excellent blog, the interwar decades saw pervasive concerns about how to tell who was a real aristocrat in a world in which commoners tried to impersonate their social betters and actual gentlemen vacationed in democratic seaside resorts.

Lord Peter Wimsey also famously suffers from shell shock, usually glossed now as a form of PTSD suffered by soldiers in World War I. In Busman’s Honeymoon, his mother explains that his early, acute symptoms manifested as an utter inability to make decisions or give orders. Having ordered his men to their violent deaths during the war, he was no longer able to assert his right to order anything at all without triggering nervous collapse. In my reading this is (among other things) an elegant metaphor for the plight of the aristocracy after the war. Lady Mary and Lord Grantham, unlike Lord Peter, want desperately to assert a power of paternal guidance over the countryside, but in spite of the aid they offer Mr. Drewe, it is really too late. Their moral authority has been permanently compromised; their Stately Homes are becoming the theatrics of power without its substance.


Jonathan Brown, Agriculture in England: A Survey of Farming, 1870-1947 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987)

Alun Howkins, “Death and Rebirth? English Rural Society, 1920-1940,” in The English Countryside Between the Wars: Regeneration or Decline? Ed. Paul Brassley, Jeremy Burchardt, and Lynne Thompson (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006)

Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1991)

Peter Mandler, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)

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